Feature: Wednesday, September 05, 2002
Strangers In Their Homeland Part 1

Muslim Americans question their country -- and themselves.

By Naureen Shah

For most of my life, my voice has cleared up any misconceptions. All-American, with accents only of Texas and lately a hint of Chicago, my voice has always been my “get out of ethnicity free” card, whether I’ve known it or not. If my teachers threw me glowering glances on the first day of school, I hastily raised my hand to clarify that, though different-looking, I was same-sounding. I thought that for the wayward traveler who happened to my family’s door to sell Girl Scout cookies or collect a bill, my bland, American English might be a welcome respite from my mother’s at-first-bewildering accent. And this thing, this sound I had that was genuinely common and regular, worked as a talisman against the evils that befall people who are thought of as different and therefore scary.

One day in eighth grade my talisman stopped working, at least for a few minutes. It was the day after the Oklahoma City bombing, and we had been herded to the front of the school under the pretense of a routine fire drill. Actually, the rumor went, a bomb threat had been phoned in. Those same “Moslems” who blew up Oklahoma City are trying to blow us up. Those Moslems suck. Someone must have realized that Those Moslems included me, and when they turned to glare, my voice got me nowhere. Before things could escalate, a teacher came around to maintain the lie that this was only a fire drill. It’s only a drill, she said, it’s not the Real Thing. Everything is OK.

Between then and last September, I was subjected to only a few rather routine reality checks. The name-calling was at first more startling than offensive, and later more farcical than fear-inducing. Really, how seriously can you take the threats of someone who can’t discern the Middle East from South Asia and calls you a camel-jockey instead of a coolie?

You can take them pretty seriously, now that all the drills are over and the Real Thing, Sept. 11, has happened. At the reports of Muslims or Muslim look-alikes (Sikhs, Arab Christians, and others who have been mistaken for the evil ones) being harassed, cornered, or even killed, you can shrug your shoulders or shake your head. It doesn’t matter what your reaction is because if you voice it, you won’t be heard in the same way you were heard before. Your voice no longer overwhelms your color, your features, your look. The Real Thing has happened, and, finally, you are being perceived as what you always have been — different.

Many Americans, without doubt, feel differently today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001. But perhaps no group has been affected more in terms of political and social life than Muslims. For every four Muslims I spoke with in the course of writing this article, three recalled thinking “Oh God, let it not be Muslims. Please, don’t make it be us,” while watching the constant replays of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. They feared that if Muslims were held responsible, their own lives would be changed profoundly. They wondered how coldly they would be received in the political arena, how everyday people would react to them, and even how safe they’d be in a place they’d become accustomed to calling home. The firebombing of mosques, attacks on individuals, and FBI and INS dragnets that landed thousands of recent Muslim immigrants in jail without access to attorneys — these incidents justified the fears of many Muslim Americans.

Today, some continue to live with that fear. The specter of internment camps drives them to send money to Switzerland or their countries of origin, a hedge against the hoped-against future date when they might no longer feel safe here. They resist inclinations to donate to Muslim causes and charities that could later be designated “terrorist,” though zakah (aid to the poor) is a core part of their faith. Some have begun to examine their culture and their beliefs to find out how compatible they are with an increasingly curious and sometimes hostile American culture. Muslims in 2002 are asking themselves questions they did not have or avoided before — can I assimilate, or does assimilation destroy what it is to be Muslim? Will my community support the War on Terrorism, or is the War on Terrorism being waged against my community? Do I belong here now, or did I ever?

At a wedding celebration at the Four Seasons Hotel in Dallas, to speak of 9/11 is almost a faux pas. As more than 500 Muslims overtake the buffet tables and alcohol-empty bars, a feeling of wealth and health abounds. Friends gush, college plans are announced, and any worries for the future are purely of a matrimonial nature — every wedding means one less good catch in the pool for anxious mothers to reel in.

In the post-9/11 world, but specifically in the rich elite world of some Metroplex Muslims, the ones suspiciously eyed by the Four Seasons security crew are the ones who aren’t in Muslim garb. In this insular setting, ordinary non-Muslim white people — who easily enter and leave the metal detectors everywhere else — are the outsiders who don’t share the manner of dress, speech and looks that is “normal.” Maybe the bizarre security management goes unnoticed because most of the people partying hard this evening are used to high-class treatment — they are doctors, engineers, and successful entrepreneurs. Perhaps the arrests, detentions, and harassment by law enforcement aren’t happening to them so much as they are to recent, less affluent immigrants. There is no way to be sure, because the INS no longer releases the names of those whom it has held or still holds in custody. And even if only a minority of Muslims are being arrested or attacked, the majority sometimes acts as if detentions are an epidemic instead of rare occurrences. The rumor mill churns. Did you hear? They have started going to the houses of Muslims who’ve donated to Islamic charities and demanding that they pay an equal sum to the Red Cross. If you don’t have the money, They’ll throw you in jail. And if you “go back” to see your parents in Pakistan, Egypt, or wherever, you will be suspected of aiding and abetting the terrorists. If you buy a Qu’ran at the bookstore, They might tap your phones.

The rumors may be outlandish, but at least some of the fears are grounded in the reality of backlash against Muslims. Three North Texas mosques — in Carrollton, Denton, and Irving — were attacked after Sept. 11, one by a Molotov cocktail. The Muslim political response has varied — some have reacted angrily to the violence while others, it seems, quietly struggle to accept it.

Maryam Khan clearly remembers driving to school on one of those mornings soon after Sept. 11 and hearing a comedic bit on 102.1, The Edge. According to Maryam, Edge announcers explained they had a Muslim woman in the studio who wore hijab, or religious covering of the body. As they explained that the woman was being stripped to nakedness, they played a tape of a screaming female voice.

Talking about the jokes made about Muslims after Sept. 11 is emotional for Maryam, a 17-year-old who recently graduated from Dallas’ prestigious Hockaday School, but she keeps her reactions subdued. She seems to mute her disgust, only saying that the The Edge joke made her think people needed to be more educated about Islam. (The Edge did not reply to requests for comment.)

“I’ve felt paranoid, but [the hate] is always happening to some population group, and it’s been a lot worse for other people,” she said.

Perhaps Maryam learned that control from her mother, who has been a leader in the Dallas-based American Muslim Caucus since its inception in 1990. Yasmin Khan is a Pakistan-born physician and single mother who came to the United States in 1977. She intersperses distinctly American phrases like “standing on your head” and “wouldn’t touch that with a 10-foot pole” in her conversation as naturally as most Muslim Americans use “In’shallah” (God willing) and “Allahuakbar” (God is great).

Yasmin displayed no anger as she sipped tea and explained that — despite the money and votes the American Muslim Caucus and other Muslim groups gathered for Republican candidates during the 1990s and the most recent presidential election — the Republican Party has virtually ignored the concerns of Muslims victimized by the post-9/11 crackdown on civil liberties. She takes the desertion in stride, admitting that Muslim political organizations have little to offer Republicans who are afraid of the negative associations.

“All Muslim organizations have raised their voice against the injustice of painting all Muslims with the same brush. But [we’re] in the infancy stage — we have no money, no political organization, and no political clout,” she said.

Still, Khan and other groups like CAIR and the American Muslim Council managed to organize the Arab and Muslim Ballot Box Barbeque at Texas Stadium this June and invited dozens of local and state politicians to attend. Rick Perry, who has attended Muslim political fundraisers before and benefited from them, sent his regrets. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, sent his wife. But Khan said the barbecue was a success — turnout was estimated at more than 7,000, and the event was covered by major newspapers. She described it as a bold step in grassroots organizing but added that most Muslims are not politically active or informed enough for such organization to overcome the prejudice created by 9/11. Activism around international conflict issues like Palestine, Kashmir, and Chechnya must come second to efforts to build an America-oriented Muslim political presence, she said.

“Your luxury of being an observer [in politics] has been taken away by 9/11,” she said. “You have to go out there and work to re-establish that American Muslims are a great asset to the U.S. And [you] have to decide that the reason to be part of any political party is the betterment of this country — first, second, and last.”

But it is unclear what influences most Muslim Americans’ foreign policy opinions. Their views differ from those of other Americans, sometimes substantially. More Muslim Americans (78 percent) believe that American foreign policy in the Middle East led to the Sept. 11 attacks than other Americans (58 percent), according to a Zogby International poll released in July and an L.A. Times poll done last September, respectively. Zogby reports that 58 percent of Muslim Americans approved of the way President Bush handled the attacks, compared to 85 percent nationally. And almost two-thirds of Muslim Americans believe that the military effort in Afghanistan could lead to further attacks, compared to 50 percent of all Americans, according to an October 2001 ABC/Washington Post poll.

At another wedding party, the setting is distinctly less opulent and less formal. It is a Sunday night, and the small number of people in attendance creates a more relaxed and intimate mood. Women sport silk instead of cotton because they are attending an evening party, but necks, wrists, and fingers are not weighed down by the diamonds and gold that most society weddings demand. Again, families exchange news of matrimony, graduation, and accreditation. But, perhaps due to the casual nature of the night, they share more. They speak of their children not just in terms of achievement, but also in terms of hope — and fear.

Pakistani-American Naeem (not his real name) hopes that his only daughter will become a broadcast journalist. He wants her to be one of those specialists CNN brings in to talk about the Middle East and Islam. He wants her to define jihad, hijab, fatwa, and those other Arabic words that have been tossed around newsrooms mostly by non-Muslim journalists. He wants her to speak up about being Muslim, to let people know what’s really going on in the Muslim-American mind.

But, for the first time in his life, Naeem, 51, an established cardiologist and family man, is afraid to speak up himself. Before Sept. 11, he would have given his name freely. He has always been interested in politics and world affairs, but now he finds himself holding back his opinions in discussions. He restrains himself from commenting on viciously racist comments in AOL chat rooms. He’s cautious even when speaking to his patients, many of whom expressed concern for his safety after Sept. 11.

It’s not that he fears his patients. “But you always wonder, how far can this conversation go?” he said. “It’s almost like the old Soviet Union now; you worry about who will report you. It’s the norm for me not to speak my mind on this particular issue.”

Naeem’s primary fear is not of being arrested by the government, although the Patriot Act (a federal act that allows the government to monitor internet chat conversations, among other things) and Operation TIPS (a volunteerism initiative being pursued by the Justice Department that would recruit civilians like postal workers and truck drivers to report “suspicious activities”) show that such a fear is well-founded. Instead, Naeem, a wealthy homeowner who arrived in the United States in 1976, fears most for his and his family’s physical safety.

“If my wife and I go to the beach for a vacation, we won’t walk to a place isolated or secluded. We will not walk on the beach alone without fear — never again will we walk alone,” he said.

Naeem’s daughter, the one he hopes will be a broadcast journalist some day, is only 14 now, so she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do. As Naeem thought of her uncertain future, he sighed. “Now I wonder for the first time if I will be able to stay here for the rest of my life,” he said. “Ask around here. Everyone does.”

Perhaps if Muslims were like the rest of America, they’d angrily march to city council demanding a response to terrorist attacks on their communities — the mosque bombings, physical harassment, and verbal abuse. They’d write to the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram demanding that the terror stop, and maybe they’d even start putting crescent-star stickers on their cars as a sign of Muslim solidarity.

Certainly not all of them quietly accepted the backlash against Muslims. The Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported that, after the mosque attacks, area imams, or religious leaders, did approach CAIR for help and legal advice. But few individual Muslims have contacted CAIR, said Tamir Ayad, the organization’s secretary. Since Sept. 11, Ayad has gone to area mosques to ask individuals to report discrimination or abuse and to become involved politically.

The majority of his audience, he said, realizes that political involvement is now more necessary than ever, but a small minority that includes both white Muslim Americans and recent immigrants hesitate to become involved with CAIR. “Some people are just afraid — they come from dictatorships in which [activism] is taboo,” Ayad said. “Others feel that, from a religious standpoint, they can’t give their allegiance to something or someone that is non-Muslim [because] they’d be committing anti-Islamic behavior.” Some Muslims consider a vote or campaign donation so serious and personal an action that giving that kind of support to a non-Muslim would be a religious infraction they are not willing to incur.

Many mosques took an interest in political issues such as U.S. aid to Israel and involvement in Bosnia before Sept. 11, usually through raising money for war victims and refugees; some mosques have raised money for charitable groups that have been accused of supporting terrorism. But since then, groups like CAIR have pushed mainstream political participation as an answer to both foreign policy and domestic concerns. Responses have been mixed.

“When we started to bring politics into the mosque it was a polarizing issue,” Ayad said. “The biggest ideological difference in Muslims is between those who believe we need to become part of the fabric of the United States and those who believe that the United States has to change [for Islam].”

The latter, explained Ayad, are a tiny minority of Muslims, wide-ranging in ages and ethnicity, who oppose participation in mainstream politics. They believe the United States will have to transform to accommodate their version of Islam, which is wholly unlike mainstream religions such as Christianity. That transformation would involve improving the morals of society and creating a state that accommodates Islamic law. Such Muslims are not interested in changing the United States through the political system, Ayad said, but are also wholly opposed to the violent methods of so-called Islamic extremists, including those who participated in the Sept. 11 attacks. Instead, they are isolationists who avoid contact with the non-Muslim world.

“They don’t want to go to social activities or change their way of life and their religion, and they’re not into building relationships [with outsiders],” Ayad said. “They talk to people in one-on-one conversations and try to convince them to change the value system, improve their morals. They have a different plan.”

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